Submitted by MoiJaimeLesCrepes t3_yj283o in askscience

I've had jingles and short musical tunes stuck in my head for hours, but I've never had the same for smells, tastes, or sights. What makes hearing so different from the other senses?

Relatedly, I should ask too what are the characteristics of an ear worm (I've noticed that they are never very long, for instance), why we even get them, and how they're engineered!



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mjbat7 t1_iulu38j wrote

In the absence of other opinions, I'll offer a perspective. In short, this is probably beyond the limits of our current understanding of neuroscience, but we have some guesses.

When people have lesions in the dominant temporal lobe they have trouble with recognising or linking the meanings of sounds and words. There is an equivalent semantic agnosis for some kinds of visual stimuli usually associated with lesions in the parietal lobe. In general, the brain tends to infer a pattern that explains disparate stimuli. The term for this is "gestalt". This is a high level function that is quite sensitive to lesional disruption - see The Man Who Mistook Hos Wife for a Hat for examples.

Semantic content in auditory stimuli, processed by the temporal lobe, is far more temporally dependent than other stimuli. Note that the term 'temporal' is shared between the lobe and the nature of it's processing is purely coincidental - it was named for the tendency of the hair of the overlying scalp to gray, showing age, before other areas of hair.

In any case, when the temporal lobe receives a segment of data that activates a specific semantic 'gestalt', it likely continues to seek confirmation of that 'gestalt'. For smells or tactile senses, or visual stimuli, it's simpler, because you just sniff or feel more, or double take. For songs, the new stimuli only adds to the gestalt if it occurs in a specific temporal sequence. As such, you need to continue the tune, either in your head, by humming, or listening to the song.

Edit: Source - I'm a neuropsychiatry registrar in an epilepsy unit, and I've read the first few chapters of Lishman's?


MoiJaimeLesCrepes OP t1_iun1l5c wrote

that makes sense! I think you may be on to something. That would explain why we don't get ear worms for other senses, if our brains don't feel the impulse to complete de gestalt.

I wonder if there's scientific research that's proven or disproven this.


aggasalk t1_iunrxzf wrote

but then why don't we just-as-easily get spoken phrases as earworms? on your explanation, you'd think it would be just as common to have a line of shakespeare or a piece of poetry or something lodged in your mind's ear, but it really just happens with music.

i think there's something special here that has to do with music specifically. dunno what that is.


floridagar t1_iuow94g wrote

That does happen to me all the time. I get phrases, unusual people's names, bits of dialogue and whatnot stuck in my head all the time and I just end up repeating them sometimes for hours.


Local_Quantum_Magic t1_iup4i2a wrote

Happens to me too, specially weird-sounding words or words in a language I'm trying to learn and is very different from the others I know (Portuguese/English vs German/Japanese). I might wake-up and already remember and have the word stuck throughout the day...


aggasalk t1_iuq4qul wrote

there's an old concept from cognitive psychology called the 'phonological loop', the idea is that this is a mechanism that we all use in memorizing things - something is put in phrase form of a certain (short) length, and just rotates through this audio-imagery buffer in order to force it into long-term memory (or, at least, to conserve it in short-term memory until we need it). sounds kind of like that to me..


Nicksanchez137 t1_iuns98p wrote

Excuse me but I read on Twitter it’s cause there’s ghosts in the walls and they crawl in your head through your ear.


Remarkable-Thought-7 t1_iulmxe4 wrote

Im offering my perspective as a music scholar here but there is a specific terminology for the element of music that becomes an ear worm. You can call it a theme, melody, or hook but entire pieces are planned around it. In classical music the entire genre of symphony is devoted to exploring the possibilities of said theme.

Hop this helps or something whatevs ams a 40oz deep... discover classical music!


MoiJaimeLesCrepes OP t1_iun25y9 wrote

is that tied to the concept of leitmotiv ?

If I may probe your brain here, is this an early modern discovery? or does it date further back (baroque? medieval?)? What about in non-Western traditions, like carnatic music with its rāgas?


Remarkable-Thought-7 t1_iunipc4 wrote

Yes! Although the concept of lietmotiv became a more formal concept through the works of Richard Wagner, and Guiseppi Verdi!

But the idea and formal processes date back to the baroque or possibly even midieval eras. The most prominent examples i can think of fall under the form of fugues. Where a melody is written and strictly immitated and developed using a "set of tools" like augmentation, dimenution, and inversion to name a few.

I would imagine that many forms of non western folk music also relied heavily on the idea of a theme so as to be easily passed down orally, but I'm speculating. Non western music history is still a bit outta my wheel house.


MoiJaimeLesCrepes OP t1_iunt6uv wrote

I was wondering precisely about fugues! they do feel like very complex variation and ornamentation of a motif, aren't they?

Then, some pieces are really centered around theme repetition, it feels. Ravel's Boléro. Pachelbel's canon. Carrol of the Bells. Looks like there's different names for that - canon, ostinato.

And then there's the use of motif and repetition/variation/ornamentation in improvisation, such as in jazz. I am not a music scholar so I can't explain how it works, but I know that they use it...

Maybe you can tell us more?


smokebringer t1_iulnf2v wrote

I have something else. When I listen to music in my car, if I get out in the middle of a song, even if I didn't really take care, the song will continue to play in my head. I can comeback in my car the next day and boom : The song continue at near the exact good moment I was singing in my head. My best was 3 days while playing "Kids with guns" from "Gorillaz' (Demon day). During 2 days the part where you hear "Sooooo that daaaaaay..." was ringing in my head. And when I took my car, it was exactly it.

Ps : using Spotify app in car.


nikogetsit t1_iumynoh wrote

Interesting note here, the music industry often relies on people getting a tune 'stuck' in people's heads to make it popular, this is what a hook in a tune is in the music industry. For instance the song 'Hey Ya' by OutKast was initially not well received by listeners, however the AI predicted it would be a hit and record labels had already spent a lot of money promoting it, so if you recall when that song came out you'll remember it was played non stop on the radio until people liked it. They basically forced us to like that song using psychology and this ear worm phenomenon.


aggasalk t1_iunrgrz wrote

"intrusive imagery" i.e. visual imagery is indeed something that happens, though it's probably generally considered pathological

[link to the paper directly] (

i would submit that "earworms" are special less because of hearing/audition, but because of something to do specifically with music. (i don't know what that would be, doubt anyone does)


MoiJaimeLesCrepes OP t1_iuns6xp wrote

>but because of something to do specifically with

That would make sense, considering musical features built around a repeated theme (this got brought up elsewhere).


aggasalk t1_iuntije wrote

Yes, now I'm reading about it a bit, and repetition (usually being a critical part of what makes something a piece of music to begin with) seems often cited as an important piece of it.

[there's this interesting book] ( (by a psychologist who studies music perception) that seems to make this hypothesis very clearly, that music is essentially about repetition, and the occurrence of earworms is specifically related to this quality. (i just read the first few pages and skimmed through it, looks interesting though)